At about 9:30 p.m. on June 3, Li Zheng was walking down a busy Beijing street to join thousands of student demonstrators in Tiananmen Square. Then, when he was still 10 blocks away, a friend warned the 24-year-old University of Toronto student to get out of the area.
He did, and 30 minutes later, soldiers from the 27th Army charged down the street and opened fire on the crowds.
The next day, Zheng, who had returned to his homeland to visit his family, said that he was horrified to see the bloodstained corpses of some of the thousands of students slain in the previous night’s crackdown being carried away on car roofs. Said Zheng last week, as he joined about 200 demonstrators outside the Chinese Consulate in Toronto to mark the 100th day since the massacre: “I had always wanted to go home to China to live. But Tiananmen Square changed all that.”
As parallel demonstrations were held around
the world to denounce China’s military crackdown, Zheng’s sentiments were echoed by other Chinese citizens in Canada—most of them in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal. Since the massacre, more than 6,000 Chinese
nationals—including Zheng—have applied for landed immigrant status under “humanitarian and compassionate” provisions that Immigration Minister Barbara McDougall announced for Chinese on June 16. So far, officials have given preliminary approval to more than 5,000 applications, virtually all involving students, who, immigration spokesmen say, will most likely be granted permanent resident status within one year.
That record has generally won the approval of immigration advocates, who say that the students—many of whom hold advanced degrees in fields such as computer science and engineering—have valuable skills to offer Canada. Declared Montreal immigration lawyer Richard Kurland: “We have managed the brain-drain coup of the decade. Chinese students abroad are the cream of a nation of one billion people, and that has caused consternation in Beijing.”
The Chinese government has harshly criticized Canada’s gesture and pledged that students returning from abroad would not face any recriminations. But most students appear to be skeptical. Dennis Lu, 26, a PhD student in material science at McMaster
University, said he suspects that several friends who returned to China since the crackdown have been arrested. Other students said they fear that government hard-liners plan to reintroduce aspects of China’s infamous Cultural Revolution. That political purge, launched in the 1960s, resulted in the expulsion of intellectuals to rehabilitation camps to do hard manual labor.
Some students, including Lu, say that at least a few of the refugee claimants may in fact be government agents sent by Beijing to infiltrate the expatriate community. Despite those concerns, Chinese student groups across Canada are working to keep the pro-democracy movement alive, organizing demonstrations like last week’s and donating to the Red Cross and Amnesty International to help victims of the crackdown. Meanwhile, cultural groups such as the Chinese-Canadian National Council (CCNC) have co-ordinated job-finding seminars, immigration counselling and emergency financial assistance to Chinese students in five Canadian cities.
Among those receiving aid is a 38-year-old tour organizer from Shanghai who arrived in Vancouver on July 2, applied for landed immigrant status last month and is now studying English. He spoke to Maclean’s through a translator and asked that his real name not be used. He said that he was involved in the student protests in Tiananmen Square in May and that he fears the authorities may harass his wife and eight-year-old son, who are still living in China. Because he has no work permit, he is supporting himself by working illegally washing dishes in a Chinatown restaurant for $30 per 12-hour shift. “I do not dare think of trying to bring my family over yet,” said the man, who rents a $90-per-month room no larger than a queen-size bed. “I cannot even take care of myself here.”
Still, most Chinese students face few difficulties. Many had already been studying in Canada for several years and have an impressive list of credentials. Xijia Gu, for one, has completed a PhD in physics at the University of Waterloo since arriving in 1983 on a student visa. Gu, 32, had planned to return to China as a researcher or professor but decided to extend his studies in Canada after being offered a $23,000 research contract for postdoctoral studies at the University of Toronto. Then, a month after the bloodbath in Tiananmen Square, Gu applied to become a permanent resident. Fearing for his safety if he returned, Gu says that he also realized Canada offered more opportunities. Said Gu, who has published 10 papers in academic journals in the past five years: “I have done research here which could not be done in China. In China, intelligence is put down. A factory worker earns much more than someone with a PhD.”
Other students had similar views. Ling Guan, 35, received a PhD in electrical engineering from the University of British Columbia last year, and now earns $36,000 annually as a Toronto-based computer systems analyst—a job that would carry an annual salary of about $600 in China. Said Guan, who applied
for landed immigrant status in April: “Here, you can get a better standard of living.” As a result, said Toronto immigration consultant John Campion, China’s military crackdown simply gave students an added incentive to stay. He added: “Most of the students were struck by the opulence of the West. They would have done anything to stay.”
But other experts say that most of the students still want to return to China if the political climate improves. Said Frank Eng, president of the CCNC’s Ottawa chapter: “Sure they can earn 20 times what they would make in China, but here they cannot share it with the
ones they love.” That is the dilemma facing U of T’s Zheng, who applied for landed immigrant status in July. Zheng says that he would like to bring his wife to Canada on a visitor’s visa, but that he is uncertain if the Chinese government will permit her to leave. Declared Zheng: “It is a Chinese saying, ‘Their policy is like the moon, it changes every day.’ ” But as last week’s demonstrations showed, even for those students who are planning to stay in Canada, concern for democracy in China is an enduring passion.
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